I recently came across a series of unintentionally humorous statements children had written in response to questions put to them in their Religious Education lessons in school. Here are a few of them: Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark. The Fifth Commandment is ‘Humour thy father and mother’. Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, and a ball of fire at night. Salome was a woman who danced naked in front of Harrods. Holy acrimony is another name for marriage. The Pope lives in a Vacuum. Paraffin is next in order after Seraphim. The patron saint of travellers is St. Francis of the Sea Sick. Iran is the Bible of Moslems. A Republican is a sinner mentioned in the Bible. The natives of Macedonia did not believe, so Paul got stoned. It is sometimes difficult to hear what is being said in church because the agnostics are so terrible. My favourite however, and very appropriate for this time of year, is the response one child gave to a question about the meaning of the Annunciation: When Mary heard she was to be the mother of Jesus, she went off and sang the Magna Carta.
This coming Sunday is the Fourth Sunday in Advent. Traditionally, on this particular Sunday, the Church thinks about ‘the Faith of Mary’ the Mother of Jesus, although actually the whole of Mary’s story is perhaps even more about ‘the Grace of God!’ Whichever way we look at it, however – the Faith of Mary or the Grace of God – the whole story is absolutely amazing. This is clearly brought out in the Lectionary Reading for the Gospel for the Third Sunday in Advent this year, which highlights the Annunciation – the angelic announcement to Mary that she would bear the Christ-child: ‘In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favoured woman! The Lord is with you!” Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favour with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.” Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.’ (Luke 1:26-38)
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a very important figure in the Story of Jesus, particularly the birth narratives of course. It is probably true to say that whilst Mary is given too prominent a place in Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic Churches, she is virtually ignored in the majority of Protestant, Evangelical, Reformed, Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches. This is a sadness because we have much to learn from Mary, not least from her willingness to say ‘Yes’ to God and to life, in response to God’s gracious dealings with her. One of the benefits of following the Lectionary Readings, or Church Calendar, is that it forces us all to think seriously about Mary (and what we have to learn from her) at least once in the course of the Church Year.
Our English name ‘Mary’ comes from the Greek ‘Maria’ which is itself based on the original Aramaic name ‘Mariam’ or ‘Miriam’. She is commonly referred to as the ‘Virgin Mary’ in accordance with the belief that she conceived Jesus miraculously through the Holy Spirit without having sexual relations with a man. The Gospel of Luke begins its account of Mary’s life with the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appears to her and announces her divine selection to be the mother of Jesus. According to other Gospel accounts, Mary was present at the Crucifixion of Jesus, and is also depicted as a member of the early Christian Community in Jerusalem. According to certain Apocryphal writings, Mary never died but was ‘assumed into Heaven’ – this is known as the ‘Assumption’.
Mary has been venerated since Early Christianity, and is considered by millions to be the most meritorious of all the ‘saints’. Some professing Christians from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic Churches believe that Mary, as the mother of Jesus, is the ‘Mother of God’ and, as such, is our ‘co-redemptrix’ in God’s great work of salvation. There is, however, significant diversity in the Marian beliefs and devotional practices within the major Christian traditions. The Catholic Church holds distinctive Marian dogmas; namely her status as the mother of God; her Immaculate Conception; her perpetual virginity; and her Assumption into heaven. On the other hand, many Protestants minimise Mary’s role within Christianity (based on the argued brevity of biblical references). What is really needed is a genuine re-examination of the place of Mary the mother of Jesus, in the Christian Story, in the light of Scripture. Certainly the view of Mary, as propagated by those who adhere to the cult of ‘Mariology’, is far, far removed from the picture we have of her in our Gospel Reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.
Luke paints a picture for us of a young, devout Jewish girl (probably only about 15 years of age), betrothed to an older Jewish carpenter, who lived in the Palestinian town of Nazareth. Mary was just an ordinary Jewish girl. There was nothing that special about her other than the fact that she had ‘found favour with God’ (v.30). We are not told that she was more devout than any other woman, nor that she possessed greater faith. We are simply told that ‘God was with her’ (v.28) … and that he had a very special, and unique, task for her. Mary had been chosen to give birth to the Christ-child, the Promised Messiah, the One who would not only redeem Israel but bring salvation to the whole world! The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her: ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!’ (vs.30-33).
The whole episode is so amazing that it is beyond our ability to adequately grasp just what was happening here? No wonder then that Mary was ‘confused and disturbed’ (v.29)? Here we have something that is quite beyond the experience of anyone of us. Think, for a moment, of the most amazing experience of your life so far? Well, this was way beyond that for Mary! What is perhaps even more amazing, however, is Mary’s response to this incredible news. She does not dismiss it as an hallucination. She does not refuse to accept God’s choice. She does not ‘run away’ from it. She simply says ‘Yes’ to God and to life! Mary responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true’ (v.38).
At some time or another, in our journey through life, God’s call comes to each one of us. In fact his call often comes more than once? Firstly, of course, he calls us to himself – to commit our lives to him, in Christ, as Saviour and Lord. ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28), says Jesus to each one of us. But then, secondly, God calls us to his service. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Ephesian Church: ‘For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago’ (Ephesians 2:10). As the old saying has it: ‘We are saved to serve!’ Furthermore, this ‘service’ is unique to us (as Mary’s call was unique to her). As the old hymn says, ‘There’s a work for Jesus, none but you can do!’ But what is our response to God’s call to us? Is it the same as Mary’s: ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true!’
I am often asked, ‘What is the thing, that you are most grateful to God for saving you from? Is it ‘sin’, or ‘death’, or ‘Satan’, or ‘Hell’?’ My answer is always the same … and it is primarily none of the above (although all these things are included). The thing that I am most grateful to God for saving me from, is ‘an empty and wasted way of life’! As the Apostle Peter tells us in his First Letter, ‘God paid a ransom to save you from the empty and wasted way of life you inherited from your ancestors’ (1 Peter 1:18). One of the most wonderful things, for me, about becoming a Christian is that it enabled me to stop frittering my life away. I didn’t know where I had come from, why I was here, or where I was going? All the plans I had made for my life were, in reality, just ‘guess work’ on my part, however much I tried to convince myself that they were ‘purposeful’? But committing my life to Christ enabled me to discover, and participate in, God’s particular plan for my life … which in turn enabled me to play my part in God’s much bigger plan for the whole world! Life is not just about us – ‘What’s in it for me?’ It is about God! It is about ‘other people’! It is about how we can play our part in God’s ‘great scheme of things’!
Girolamo Savonarola was one of the great preachers of the 15th Century. He preached in the great Cathedral of Florence, Italy, which contained a magnificent marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Early on in his ministry he noticed an elderly woman praying before this statue of Mary. He began to notice that it was her habit to come every day and pray before the statue. Savonarola mentioned this to an elderly priest who had been serving in the cathedral for many years: ‘Look how devoted and earnest this woman is. Every day she comes and offers prayers to the blessed Mother of Jesus. What a marvellous act of faith?’ The elderly priest smiled knowingly, and replied: ‘Do not be deceived by what you see. Many years ago when the sculptor needed a model to pose for this statue of the blessed Mother, he hired a beautiful young woman to sit for him. This devout worshiper you see here everyday is that young woman. She is worshiping who she used to be!’ What a contrast between the self-centred attitude of the one, and the selfless attitude of the other?
What do we have to learn from this story Luke recalls in his Gospel concerning Mary the mother of Jesus, and her response to this extraordinary call from God to her? We learn the value, and the importance, of selflessly saying ‘Yes’ to God and to life!
What else did the Angel tell you?
While you nurtured his message
And pondered the wild potential
Of a womb. Did you envision those
Who would come after, the generations
That would Balkanise your heart,
Stamp your image on their banners
And lead you into battle;
That the wind would carry your name
From a German soldier’s lips
As he lay dying on the Eastern front.
A Polish captain would wear your medal
Up the heights of Monte Cassino?
Do you grow weary of false sightings
And forced tears, the rote of rosaries,
The bargains of Novenas?
Oh, Lady of Guadalupe,
Madonna of Czestochowa,
Queen of Patriarchs,
Do you sometimes long to cry out
To the complaining Daughters of Eve,
To the rapacious Sons of Adam:
“Stop. Be silent. Listen. Hear me.
I’m Miriam, the Jewish girl from Nazareth
Who said ‘Yes’ to life!”
~ Alice Tarnowski